For the first two months of the 2014-15 season, the conversation coming out of the New York Rangers dressing room focused on their search for consistency. Injuries and illness, particularly on defense, made it difficult for the Rangers to play the way they want to play, meaning a low-risk, high-reward game built on speed through the neutral zone backed by superior goaltending.
Consistency, like the health of their defensemen, is no longer a problem. Watch the Rangers now and it looks like they're playing in fast forward. They're playing at a breakneck speed, particularly when they transition from defense to offense. The results have been staggering.
The Rangers have won five games in a row and 13 of their past 14 heading into their game against the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Last week, the Rangers became the third team since 2000-01, and first since the Buffalo Sabres in 2011-12, to sweep the three California teams in the same season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
With a regulation win Tuesday, the Rangers can move within three points of first place in the Metropolitan Division; they were 12 points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and Islanders on Dec. 8, when they defeated the Penguins in overtime to start their current hot streak.
Here are five reasons why the Rangers have found the consistency they were looking for in the first two months of the season:
1. Controlling the middle of the ice
The Rangers have used their speed to transition effectively from offense to defense, but when the puck is going the other way they have been in control of the middle of the ice and are reducing the number of rush chances against.
"One of the things AV [coach Alain Vigneault] is always stressing now is the back pressure," Rangers center Derick Brassard said. "We have good skaters so a lot of times we get good back pressure and it allows our defensemen to gap up and not give any space in the neutral zone."
The Rangers have cut down their total shots against per game by almost five in their past 14 games versus their first 25 games, from 29.2 to 25.7. They have cut down their 5-on-5 scoring chances against per game from 19.84 to 15.14, according to stats compiled by War-on-ice.com.
The Rangers have not dominated possession. They are averaging more than one full shot fewer per game in their past 14 games (29.1) than they did in their first 25 (30.5), and their Corsi-for percentage is only slightly improved (51.1 percent since Dec. 8; 49.7 percent from Oct. 8-Dec. 7). But their success is less about the chances they get and more about the limited chances they aren't giving up.
"When we didn't have success early in this season a lot of times we tried to open up too much, and our coaching staff was always telling us to play some good defense because we're going to have our scoring chances," Brassard said. "We can't allow the other teams to get odd-man rushes. If we play tight with the goaltending we have, we're going to have success."
2. Goaltending supremacy
Even though they're limiting quality chances against by controlling the middle of the ice, it wouldn't matter much if the Rangers goaltending was lacking.
Hint: It's not.
Rangers goalies Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot had a combined .909 save percentage in the first 25 games of the season; they have a combined .938 save percentage in the past 14.
Lundqvist is 11-1-0 with 1.57 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in his past 12 starts. He has allowed two goals or fewer in 10 of the games and hasn't allowed more than three in any. Lundqvist had a 2.70 GAA and .905 save percentage in his first 19 starts.
Talbot has started two games in the past 14 and has won them both with a .938 save percentage and 1.50 GAA. He had an 18-save shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 18 and made 28 saves in a 4-3 win at Los Angeles last week. He had a 2.34 GAA and .921 save percentage in his first seven appearances.
"Obviously the way both our goaltenders have played has been a huge factor," Vigneault said.
3. Balanced attack
The Rangers are getting scoring from up and down the lineup. Look no further than their three-game California road sweep last week.
Brassard's line with Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello contributed three goals in a 4-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday. The Rangers got goals from two defensemen and the fourth line in their 4-3 win against the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. Derek Stepan's line with Chris Kreider and Martin St. Louis scored two first-period goals in their 3-1 win against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday.
Overall, the Rangers have 50 goals from 17 players in the past 14 games, with a team-high nine from Nash and 10 from defensemen.
Kreider, Stepan, St. Louis and J.T. Miller each have four goals; Brassard, Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Klein have three. The only players without a goal are Tanner Glass, John Moore and Matt Hunwick, but they have been in and out of the lineup.
4. Special teams
The fact that the Rangers are 10th in the NHL on the power play (20.7 percent) and 11th in killing penalties (82.3 percent) goes to show how bad they were on special teams through their first 25 games of the season because their numbers in the past 14 games have been excellent.
New York is 12-for-39 on the power play (30.7 percent) and 35-for-41 on the penalty kill (85.3 percent) since Dec. 8. The Rangers started this 14-game run with a power play that was 21st in the NHL at 15.9 percent (13-for-82) and a PK that was 17th at 80.7 percent (67-for-83).
Their power play has generated the most buzz. The Rangers have scored a power-play goal in eight of their past 11 games. They have slightly bumped up their total power-play shot attempts per game (2.64 in the past 14 games; 2.37 in the first 25).
"Like any other power play, solid puck movement, and when the opportunity to shoot the puck is there we shoot it," Vigneault said. "The toughest thing to defend against any power play is the shot, you never know where that rebound is going. Our guys have a shoot-more mentality and it's paying off."
5. Nash being Nash
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 26 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 41
SOG: 145 | +/-: 19
Nash likes to keep saying that he's doing the same things he did last season, with the only difference being that the puck is going in the net for him this season. That's his humble way of deflecting praise away from him and his 26 goals, something he again tried to do Monday.
"A lot of the goals are puck-luck stuff, bouncing off my shinpad, off my stick," Nash said. "I'm getting lots of chances every night, and I owe a lot of that to Brass and Zuke [Brassard and Zuccarello], playing with Marty [St. Louis] early on. Those are the guys that are making me look good on the ice. It's not just me."
It's a good try by Nash, but anybody watching him this season knows better. Nash is dominating because he's using his size and speed to get to the middle of the ice and, most importantly, to the front of the net. He has been since the start of the season, that's why the goals haven't stopped coming even if his shooting percentage has regressed slightly.
Nash had 17 goals on 86 shots (19.7 percent shooting) through the first 25 games; he has nine goals on 59 shots (15.2 percent) in the past 14 games. Part of the reason his shooting percentage has dipped is Nash is shooting more (4.21 shots per game in past 14; 3.44 per game in first 25).